How to Overcome Perfectionism and Just Write the Thing

Shaunta Grimes

Or: Overcoming your artistic stumbling blocks.

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My friend Juneta is an artist writer. In fact, when I think about artist writers, I always think about Juneta.

An artist writer is someone who:

  • Is a perfectionist.
  • Has lots of ideas, but tends to want struggle shifting between them, so usually works on one thing at a time.
  • Writes for their muse.
  • Really wants readers to appreciate the artistry of what they’ve done.
  • Has a hard time moving on if what they’ve done so far doesn’t feel perfect enough.
  • Sometimes feels like they can’t do something, even though they totally can, because they want to do everything really well.
  • They often work more slowly than other writers, but generally wind up with a really beautiful draft.

Every type of writer (there are five, btw) has their own kryptonite they have to overcome. For artists, it’s that perfectionism. Everything that trips them up stems from that.

Their muse often won’t let them move past something that isn’t perfect.

They write more slowly than they’d like to, because they are striving for perfection.

It’s sometimes impossible for them to even consider writing something that isn’t perfect, so they often suffer from Blank-Page-Syndrome.

Artist writers need systems for overcoming that perfectionism — or at least working with it. Here are my ideas.

Create a Zero Draft

I’m really excited about this strategy, because it’s new to me.

A zero draft is basically the draft before your first draft. Sometimes it’s called a fast or dirty draft. Basically, you just sit down and tell yourself the story. Because this draft doesn’t ‘count,’ writing it may help you to bypass your perfectionism.

Once you’ve got your zero draft written, you’ll have something to perfect rather than trying to create perfection from scratch.

My favorite way to zero draft is to write it like a giant synopsis. Maybe one page per anticipated 10,000 words of finished draft. So, for an 80,000 word novel a zero draft might be 8 or 10 pages long.

I write it in third person, present tense, and literally just tell myself the story.

Write Tomorrow’s First Line Today

One of the best ways to avoid the blank-page syndrome that can arise when you’re gripped by perfectionism is to know what you’re going to write before you sit down to work.

I have a long-standing habit of making a note of what I plan to write tomorrow when I’m done writing today. Just a quick note about the next scene.

You can take this further by also writing the first line of that scene.

When you’re done writing today, you’ll be warmed up and on a roll. Coming up with one more line won’t be difficult. Your muse is already engaged. Writing that first line can be a reminder of what you meant to do next.

Practice Shitty Writing

You’re allowed to write poorly. I know. It’s hard to wrap your head around. Especially if you’re a perfectionist artist writer.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to an artist writer who tells me that they can’t write any faster or even at all, because they’re all up in their head about making what they produce just right.

One strategy for overcoming (or at least learning to work with) perfectionism is to actually practice shitty writing. You need to override your instinct to give up when what you produce doesn’t meet your creative standards.

Repeat after me: your first draft can stink.

It’s okay. It will all be okay. Once you have that crap first draft written, you’ll have something to work with and perfect.

Think about it this way: the least perfect thing for a writer is an unfinished draft. You must finish your first draft if you want to be a successful writer.

Make Sure You Really Understand Your Goals

What is it you really want out of being a writer?

Do you want to earn your living at it? If you do, that’s awesome. But maybe you don’t. Maybe you want writing to be your art and you’re okay with supporting it with some other kind of work.

Do you want to be a blogger/novelist/poet/whatever? Maybe. But maybe not. You don’t ever have to write anything you don’t want to. I promise.

Artist writers often struggle with the volume of writing that’s required for being a full-time writer. The idea of producing work just for pay can also be difficult.

You can, of course, overcome that. Separate the work you do for money from the work you do for art. Set deadlines for yourself and just power through.

But also? It’s okay to decide that you’re an artist and that you want to keep your writing about art. It’s okay to never want to write to market or blog or freelance or whatever it is that you think you have to do because it’s what working writers do.

Cage Your Inner Editor

My inner editor is named Blythe. She’s kind of a bitch. She has a habit of undermining my self-confidence, reminding me that I’m not good enough.

Blythe actually wants to protect me. Writing is hard and when she ‘helpfully’ points out that I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m probably going to fail anyway — she’s just truthtelling to give me a way out.

Right? I mean, surely my brain isn’t actually beating me up for fun.

I have to override Blythe to keep my sanity and ever get anything done. And if you’re an artist, you really need to do the same with your inner editor.

I keep Blythe in a bird cage. It’s pretty. Very ornate, Victorian, gilded. And it’s covered with velvet. The dark keeps the bitch quiet. I let her out when I need her — when I actually have something to edit.

Remember That This is Supposed to be Fun

Writing is the best work in the world. I really believe that. It’s awesome, because it’s big fun. Creating stories is magical.

Perfectionism is the killer of fun. It turns everything into a drudgery, sometimes.

There’s a time and place for it. When you’re finishing up your final draft? Let that inner editor go wild. But until then, remember that it’s okay to have fun. It’s okay to let go of the idea of being perfect.

Here’s my secret weapon for sticking with whatever your thing is.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation, Rebel Nation, The Astonishing Maybe, and Center of Gravity. She is the original Ninja Writer.

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Novelist and teacher living in Northwestern PA.

Warren, PA
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